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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Google makes $280m solar investment

Associated Press
June 14, 2011

Google is making its largest investment yet in clean energy in an effort to help private homeowners put solar panels on their rooftops.

The $280 million deal with installer SolarCity is the largest of its kind. SolarCity can use the funds to pay for a solar system that it can offer to residents for no money down. In exchange, customers agree to pay a set price for the power produced by the panels.

Google earns a return on its investment by charging SolarCity interest to use its money and reaping the benefits of federal and local renewable energy tax credits.
“It allows us to put our capital to work in a way that is very important to the founders and to Google, and we found a good business model to support,’’ said Joel Conkling of Google’s Green Business Operations yesterday.
Google founder and chief executive Larry Page wants Google’s operations to eventually produce no net greenhouse gas emissions. To this end, Google has invested in wind farms in North Dakota, California, and Oregon, in solar projects in California and Germany, and in the early stages of a transmission system off the East Coast meant to foster the construction of offshore wind farms. The SolarCity deal brings the total value of these investments to $680 million.

Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., is emerging as one of the biggest corporate users of energy as it continues to build data centers packed with computers.

A typical rooftop solar system costs $25,000 to $30,000, too much for many homeowners to lay out.

Instead, solar providers like SolarCity and competitors SunRun and Sungevity can pay for the system with money borrowed from a bank or a specially designed fund. The resident then pays a set rate for the power generated. The rate is lower than or roughly the same as the local electricity price.

Electricity prices have not risen in recent months, unlike gasoline and heating oil. But they are expected to creep up in coming years as the cost of increasingly stringent clean-air regulations are passed on to customers.

These types of programs don’t work well in all states or for all homes.

In order for both the solar company to make money and the homeowner to save money there must be some combination of high local electric rates, state and local subsidies, and low installation costs.

Google investors have questioned investments that have little to do with the company’s main Internet businesses and that may be potentially risky or generate lower returns.

In a meeting with investors last month, Google chief financial officer Patrick Pinchette said tax benefits of these projects can generate high returns.

“In order for us to invest in them they have to do very well from a returns perspective,’’ Pinchette said.


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